HERMISTON — There was the late blight scare, bouts with silver scurf, corn smut and a beet leafhopper that came from out of the blue and transmitted a deadly plant virus.
And through it all there was the underlying principle that Phil Hamm operates by, the idea that he and others at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center are there to help farmers be more successful.
As plant pathologist and then director at the Eastern Oregon research and extension facility, Hamm has helped growers battle several potentially devastating plant diseases over the past three decades. Come the end of August, however, those days will be over.
Hamm announced recently he is retiring after 44 years with Oregon State University, including serving the last 29 years at the Hermiston-based center and the last 14 as the center’s director. He has worked half-time since 2012.
Looking back, Hamm identified several highlights, including multiple bouts with plant diseases of potatoes, such as silver scurf and late blight.
A foliar disease of potatoes, late blight spread rapidly after appearing suddenly in the Columbia Basin in the mid-1990s.
“In the ‘90s, we spent considerable effort and collaborated with many others to help overcome issues with late blight,” Hamm said. “Today, it is still out there and costs growers money to manage, but for the most part, we know how to manage that one pretty well.
“And then along came beet leafhopper transmitted virulescent agent. I remember when we first knew we had a problem ...,” Hamm said.
“So, I asked potato growers to come and meet in our conference room and we tried to find out if there was something that some of them did that others didn’t do that helped them get by, and we found that those who treated for another insect in late May/early June had no problems, whereas those who did not, did have problems.
“That was a case where growers came together to help other growers,” Hamm said.
“Then there were things like silver scurf,” Hamm said. “We didn’t know anything about it, and then we found it is seed borne, and we learned how to manage that one.”
“Corn smut was a real interesting thing,” Hamm said. “I can remember the first field I found corn smut in. It was a half-circle of sweet corn and I thought it was a novelty. Well, that novelty became a major issue.
“George Clough, the station’s research horticulturist at the time, and I started doing a variety trial and we identified super sweet jubilee and jubilee as being highly susceptible, while some of the newer varieties were not,” Hamm said. “At the time many of the 100,000 acres of sweet corn grown in the basin were planted to those two varieties. I can tell you that none of that is being grown now.”
Part of the legacy Hamm leaves behind at the center are the field days that today are a regular feature of the center. When Hamm started as director in 2005, there were no field days. Since then, the center has held three to four each year.
The field days provide researchers with an invaluable opportunity to share their findings with growers and field men, Hamm said, and exemplify what Hamm is all about, according to Scott Reed, director of the OSU Extension Service.
“Phil never forgets the E in HAREC (the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center),” Reed said. “And it is a capital E, because to generate new knowledge is one thing, but you need to put knowledge to work.”
“Field days or anything we do here is about the growers,” Hamm said. “It is not about us. We exist to provide them the information they need to be more successful.
“And it is not like we are sitting here like the Maytag repairman in that old commercial with our feet up on the desk waiting for a phone call. There is always something. There is always a need.”
Hamm leaves behind a center equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories and other facilities that he said were made possible largely because of contributions from the local community.
“Because of so many people that have helped over the last 10 years, this station is situated to move forward in a very positive way,” Hamm said.
Hamm said he will miss interacting with growers, attending field days and seeing the center’s staff on a day-to-day basis.
“I am certainly going to miss the day-to-day opportunities I have to interact with staff here and the stakeholders that are so much a part of what we serve,” Hamm said.
He added that he and his wife, Linda, plan to continue to reside in Hermiston and be an active part of the community. There will be more fishing and hunting involved, however, and less work in his future, he said.